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A Shot of Short Stories

Just because it's a busy time of year, it doesn't mean you have to compromise on reading. Here's a selection of five short stories to feed your appetite for a shotgun literary fix!

We’re in a busy time of the year, whether it’s exams, occupational deadlines, or the weighty decision-making fiascos for a Halloween costume, you’ll find your odd balls compromising on the oh-so-integral task of reading. It’s okay, I won’t judge you for your idiocy. Okay, maybe a little. But don’t stress your sweaty brows, I’ve concluded the arduous task of assembling a set of some (disclaimer: some is different from all) of my favourite short stories to date. Chime in children, you’re about to get a series of stellar one night stands in the literary sphere:

1.Bartleby; The Scrivener by Herman Melville 

This is a story heavily rooted in the existentialist tradition that draws attention to one’s own ability to dictate the conditions of life and freedom. Bartleby arrives at a job as a scrivener and toils through the mundane process of routine procedures until one day when his boss requests an assignment from him and he responds saying; “I’d prefer not to.” The rest of the story is characterised by this line, as slowly but surely, Bartleby continues to exercise his right of choice through the use of the same profession. The outcome of his repeated appeal that he “prefers not to,” is carried on to arguably absurd levels of stubbornness that reinforces the idea of man’s free will. Repetition when held against the contextual backdrop of the snowballing consequences that Bartleby begins to face becomes an integral component in driving the point home. I, alongside numerous scholarly critics, especially appreciate this short story for the construction of an iconic phrase that has forged a place for itself amidst the “lines of fame” in the literary world. I sincerely encourage you to read Bartleby, The Scrivener in your free time… but needless to say, it’s fine if you “prefer not to.” 

2. Hills Like White Elephants by Earnest Hemmingway

Hills Like White Elephants is written in tune with the extolled ‘less is more’ style of Hemmingway. Heavily characteriaed by a dialogue between a man (referred to as “the American”) and a woman (whom the man refers to as “Jig”), the story is presented by what’s written in ink, but more significantly understood through what isn’t said. The conversation (or lack there of) between the man and the woman carefully constructs a psychological imprint of both characters separately, as well as their relationship to one another. For anyone who has ever experienced the perils of disconnected communication, this short story speaks volumes on the human psyche, and the ways in which we confuse adaptation and compromise with denial. It harbours a disturbing undertone of discontentment, regret, and the inability or disinterest in changing one’s circumstances for the comfort of routine. I realise this “blurb” is written in a series of abstractions, but I have done so purposely in order to keep in line with the atmosphere created in the story. The stony simplicity of dialogue demands multiple readings from which the reader will never tire for varying interpretations and analysis. 

3. Satan or The Pastor and Satan by Khalil Gibran

The story opens with the lines: 

“One evening the pastor was out walking and he heard an anguished cry. He looked and saw a battered man lying in the gutter. His clothes were ripped and he was covered in blood. The man was crying, save me, have mercy on me, please help me, I am dying.”

In a typical ‘man of God’ fashion, the Pastor is quick to assist the man in pain but as he begins to engage in conversation with him, he learns that the man is Satan. Upon learning of Satan’s identity, the Pastor hastily indulges in a retreat tactic, revoking his initial helping hand. What follows is an intricate and detailed discourse between Satan and the Pastor that taps into the necessity of evil for there to be a foundation for religion. Satan offers an argument that arguably encompasses a romantic view of himself on Miltonian proportions, effectively swaying the initial pedantic rhetoric adopted by the Pastor. I haven’t disclosed the ending of the story, but it is truly a work of genius on the part of Gibran. He masterfully frames the timeless debate concerning the forces of evil and good, addressing subjects profoundly explored by the likes of philosophers such as Socrates and Plato.

4. The Town of Cats by Haruki Murakami 

The Town of Cats is an excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, 1Q84. Having said this, it also stands alone as a short story that, on its own, secures a place in the category of must-reads. Presented in the novel as a short story from a German anthology collection, The Town of Cats tells a tale of a lone traveler who boards a train “with no particular destination in mind.” When he emerges on a random platform, the train zooms out of sight and he quickly discovers that not only is the station abandoned, but the whole town is devoid of human life. When the sun sets, the man climbs into a clock tower to rest. Only then does he witness the absurdity of the town. Cats of various shapes and sizes emerge, open shop, patrol the street sides and interact with one another as though they were a collection of people traversing any other cosmopolitan city in the world. Terrified, the man keeps himself hidden in hopes of boarding the morning train that would take him back to “reality.” In the night, however, the cats sense his smell and trace it back to the clock tower where he is residing. As the fanged and ferocious cats near the man’s hiding place, the man becomes sure of his ill-timed end. I am going to stop the summary there, hoping to have piqued your interest to read it on your own time. Ultimately, The Town of Cats illuminates the nature of man’s psyche and how he retreats into a place that is nowhere; somewhere with no exit and that is intractable by those around him: the town of cats. 

5. The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

 

I decided to add this one in there for the dual benefit of it being a great story, but also because Halloween is right around the bend. And who better to represent the occasion in the literary world than Edgar Allan Poe? A dramatic insight into the workings of guilt, paranoia, and self-destruction, the story reveals the inner thoughts and conflicts of a psychopathic murderer who has killed and buried people under his floorboards. His mind is set in motion when the police ask to enter his home to shelter them selves from a storm. The reader experiences a detailed account of the guilt-driven madness that consumes the protagonist. This story is guaranteed to send chills down your spine as you sit on the edge of your seat. If you’re not a fan of horror or thrillers, why not push yourself this Halloween season?